Walking along the Cannes Croisette last year in what has become a pre-Festival billboard pilgrimage, it was impossible not to be taken aback by the title My Life as a Courgette. Was this some exploitation movie, the kind that has been emblazoned on these historic pristine white buildings in the past?
As it turned out My Life as a Zucchini (English title) is a heartfelt tale of troubled kids banding together in an orphanage. It emerged as one of the best movies at the festival – and it’s stop motion animation.
While visually closer to Aardman’s style, most notably Creature Comforts, and more upbeat than Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas, the film is more akin to the live action humanist dramas of Ken Loach, says Claude Barras, the Swiss illustrator-turned-director who here makes his first feature, based on Gilles Paris’s 2002 novel, Autobiographie d'une courgette.
“I want to make movies for children, it's my style and I want to continue making them,” Barass says. “But this novel was written more for an adult audience. It was written in the first person, has lots of episodes and less of a dramatic arc. It also speaks of sad things and one of our greatest challenges was to soften the story, to introduce some humour, so kids could see it too. Cédric Louis, my collaborator on my short films, which also had childhood themes, suggested that the characters should have oversized heads and big round eyes, and that really helped.”
The old adage that the eyes are the window to the soul has never been truer than here. Still some finesse was required in fleshing out the characters and Céline Sciamma, a specialist in writing coming-of-age movies including Girlhood (which she also directed) and André Téchiné’s Being 17, was up for the task of writing the screenplay.
At the heart of the action is Icare, a nine year-old boy who calls himself Zucchini. It’s a nickname his heavy-drinking mother gave him before he accidentally caused her death while playing with empty beer cans. With the help of a kindly policeman, he is sent to an orphanage where he meets other children who have suffered similar neglect and abuse. Yet as with the book, it’s no horrific Lowood Jane Eyre-type tale. The people running the orphanage are understanding and realise that creating a family of any sort is better than none at all.
"For me that raised the question, what is a family today? There are references to films from the '80s like The Breakfast Club, The Outsiders and Stand by Me, about groups of young people who find solidarity against the melancholy."
“I did lots of research on orphanages of this type and the challenge was to inject some light into the characters of these kids,” Sciamma explains. “So when Zucchini comes to the orphanage, he does not view it as hell. He sees it as a new beginning, to be with the other children like a substitute family. For me that raised the question, what is a family today? There are references to films from the '80s like The Breakfast Club, The Outsiders and Stand by Me, about groups of young people who find solidarity against the melancholy.”
For Barras it was personal. “I always wanted to make a film for kids that reproduces the sensations that I had as a child watching engrossing dramas about families with difficult moments that made me cry. I’m a bit of a romantic! I used to draw all the time as a child but my personality was more like Simon, because he’s both gentle and cruel,” he chuckles.
Simon is the bully who vents his frustrations on Zucchini when he first arrives and he is especially jealous when Zucchini bonds with Camille, the girl he also fancies. Ultimately you become so engrossed in the emotional drama that you forget the characters are puppets.
“Stop motion is something between a dramatic and an animated film,” Barras notes. “Unlike hand-drawn or computer animation, you have a physical object you’re working with so it feels more real,” he says of the handcrafted puppets, which were made from latex, silicone resin and fabric wrapped around a kind of skeleton.
Ten years in the making – seven years of preparation and three years spent creating the puppets, art and set design – the film was shot over ten months at the Rhône-Alpes Studio in Lyon where Barras had trained.
“We had 10 animators when I think Hollywood studios would have 100, so the whole process was slower. With stop motion animation you have to be very organised in advance. The script has to be so well written and the dialogue has to be so precise so there aren’t any surprises for the animators. It’s a long, difficult process but it’s very rewarding.”
"I always wanted to make a film for kids that reproduces the sensations that I had as a child watching engrossing dramas about families with difficult moments that made me cry. I’m a bit of a romantic!"
One of the reasons for the film’s success is the way in which Barras worked with the voice cast. “We hired non-actors for the children and professionals for the adults,” he explains. “We cast the kids in an unconventional way, making them interact and improvise with each other. They played the scene from beginning to end without knowing the story so the emotions came naturally, while the professional actors helped to organise and reassure them. This approach worked well and inspired the animators who said they’d rarely worked with voices that were so expressive.”
My Life as a Zucchini deservedly made the Oscars shortlist for best animated feature and won at the Césars and the EFAs. An English-language version with voices including Will Forte, Ellen Page, Nick Offerman and Amy Sedaris, premiered in Sundance this year. Both the French and English-language versions will screen as part of the Sydney Film Festival.
Watch 'My Life as a Zucchini'
Sunday 23 August, 3:40pm on SBS World Movies
Monday 24 August, 10:20am on SBS World Movies
France, Switzerland, 2016
Genre: Animation, Drama, Family
Director: Claude Barras
Starring: Gaspard Schlatter, Sixtine Murat, Paulin Jaccoud, Michel Vuillermoz
Now streaming at SBS On Demand: